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The delta variant hasn't made a dent in U.S. travel demand, airlines say

July 23, 2021
5 min read
A man, woman, and young child, all wearing masks, wheel luggage through an airport.
The delta variant hasn't made a dent in U.S. travel demand, airlines say
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The delta variant hasn't been a problem for Delta Air Lines. Nor any other U.S. carrier. At least, not yet.

Travel demand in the U.S. has not been blunted by the rapidly spreading delta variant, the major U.S. airlines have all said, with current travel numbers and future bookings continuing to trend upward.

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The resilience in travel demand comes despite a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. in recent weeks, although confirmed case levels are still well below the highs of this winter. The variant makes up 83% of current U.S. cases, the CDC said.

The delta variant has been observed to be about 50%-60% more contagious than the alpha variant that drove the pandemic this winter, which was, in turn, 50% more contagious than the original strain.

However, all of the vaccines approved in the U.S. appear to be effective at protecting against the delta variant, preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death, although there are some indications that they may be less effective at preventing breakthrough infections. Still, more than 97% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 last week were unvaccinated, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, and 99.5% of COVID deaths in the U.S. were among unvaccinated people, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said.

The evident efficacy of the vaccines has meant that U.S. travelers are largely remaining confident, airline CEOs said this week.

“We haven’t seen any impact at all on bookings, which continue to get stronger week after week,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during the company's second-quarter earnings call this week. “We think the most likely outcome is that the continued recovery in demand continues unabated.”

At United's competitors, leadership generally agreed.

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"Demand for our product remains strong and we're very encouraged by the trends we're seeing in the revenue environment," American Airlines president Robert Isom said on a conference call Thursday. "The recovery is happening."

Delta CEO Ed Bastian expressed similar sentiments last week.

"We know our customers are largely vaccinated,” Bastian said. “Our people are largely vaccinated.”

More: 6 things we learned about Delta this week during its earnings call

“The vaccines work and they’re giving people the ability to get back to their lives,” he added. “So no, we’re not anticipating any changes at this time.”

"We're looking at the customer sentiment, but we're also certainly looking at current bookings, as well as forward bookings," Southwest chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said in response to a question from TPG. "We are just not seeing at this point any issue or any impact from the Delta variant."

While this is certainly good news for airlines and the broader travel industry, which has been among those hit hardest during the pandemic, it raises an obvious question: why are people not avoiding travel, which is largely perceived as a high-risk activity, despite the rise of the variant, even among vaccinated people?

According to Dr. Anthony Santella, professor of health administration and policy at the University of New Haven, a large part of it comes down to messaging.

"Part of it is messaging from the federal government," he said. "People hear that and they're like, well, the 'experts' are telling us that if we're vaccinated, we don't need to abide by these by these measures anymore. And the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated person sees that as kind of their escape."

Dr. Santella noted that while the vaccines are largely effective, they're not a "magic shield," and believes that some pandemic mitigation measures may come back into place this fall.

"If I, as a fully vaccinated person was going to travel, I would continue to follow the kind of public health mitigation strategies, including wearing a mask when indoors," he said. "Unless I'm eating, I'm wearing a mask."

More: Business travel is surging back sooner than expected, but there’s still some bad news for airlines

A self-proclaimed "huge traveler" — Dr. Santella said he's visited between 25 and 30 countries and has filled passports before — he noted that he made the personal decision to avoid traveling during the pandemic.

Still, according to all the data, other travelers are ready to get back into the world, variant or not.

On Sunday, 2,227,704 people traveled by air in the U.S., 81% of the number that traveled on the same day in 2019. It was the first time that more than 2.2 million travelers took to the skies since March 2020.

Featured image by MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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5XGet 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com
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    The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.

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  • Annual Fee

    $695
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Good, Excellent

Why We Chose It

It's hard to find a card that competes with the mile-long list of benefits that come with the Amex Business Platinum. While it's certainly not the card for the average consumer, a business owner with tons of expenses -- especially related to travel -- will find this card incredibly valuable. This card is similar to the consumer version that Amex offers, but with more business-oriented perks around statement credits and earning rates that are a better fit for business owners.

Pros

  • An up to $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee every four to five years
  • Up to $400 annual credit for eligible U.S. Dell purchases (enrollment required)
  • Gold status at Marriott and Hilton hotels (enrollment required)
  • Access to the Fine Hotels & Resorts program and Hotel Collection
  • Extended warranty protection
  • International Airline Program and Cruise Privileges Program

Cons

  • Steep annual fee
  • Difficulty meeting $15,000 welcome offer for smaller businesses
  • Limited high-bonus categories outside of travel
  • The Points Guy Exclusive Offer: Earn 150,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $15,000 on eligible purchases with the Business Platinum Card® within the first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com, and 1X points for each dollar you spend on eligible purchases.
  • Earn 1.5X points (that’s an extra half point per dollar) on eligible purchases at US construction material & hardware suppliers, electronic goods retailers and software & cloud system providers, and shipping providers, as well as on purchases of $5,000 or more everywhere else, on up to $2 million of these purchases per calendar year.
  • Unlock over $1,000 in annual statement credits on a curation of business purchases, including select purchases made with Dell Technologies, Indeed, Adobe, and U.S. wireless service providers.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year for checked baggage fees, lounge day passes, and more at one selected airline.
  • $189 CLEAR® Credit: Use your Card and get up to $189 back per year on your CLEAR® membership. CLEAR® is available at more than 50 U.S. airports and stadiums.
  • The American Express Global Lounge Collection® can provide an escape at the airport. With more than 1,400 airport lounges across 140 countries and counting, you have more lounge location options than any other credit card on the market as of 9/2021.
  • $695 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.